What My Mom Taught Me About Innovative Thinking (that my MBA didn't)

I named my business simplovate because I’m passionate about innovation. I believe that generating new ideas fuels the spirit. 

But why simple? Because I also believe that innovative thinking is far simpler than we’ve been made to believe. It’s at the heart of human nature and rather than adding more layers of methodology it requires a stripping back to reveal human gifts. 

My mom taught me that. Not through lecture, but through example.

My mom was born in a time so different than ours that it’s almost unimaginable, and certainly not something we can easily relate to. She was the oldest of ten children and 12-years old when her father went to war. 

Her family was poor beyond modern definition. When my grandfather left for war my 12-yr old mom left school and went to work full-time in a factory. Not in a third world country but in London, ON Canada. 

As a child when I would question it she would simply respond “What other choice was there? My mother had to look after the other children and they were too young to work. You do what you have to do.” 

At the age of 12 she learned that you just have to get on with it.  Very occasionally she would mention a missed opportunity, such as not being able to perform as a dancer on stage  “because my mother needed me to work” - but for the most part her stories of those days were recited to us without bitterness. 

You just get on with it.

When she was 13-yrs old she witnessed her young sister get struck and killed by a vehicle right before her eyes. She resumed work after a short period of treatment because “there was no choice. I had to support the other kids." Even in the face of extreme adversity, you persevere.

My grandfather returned from war and my mom married my dad. They met in a factory where they both worked. After marriage my mom stayed home and had children while my dad continued working in the factory. 

They settled and traded up houses until they found one in a neighbourhood and of a size that she felt was fit for raising a family. But realising that she couldn’t always rely on my father to bring home a full pay when the whistle blew on cheque day, she decided to take charge of generating more income.

She made a suite in the attic for the family to live and took in boarders. She rented out the four bedrooms - two women to a room, cooked them hot breakfast and dinner and packed them lunch to take to work. All while raising three children under the age of five. Eight boarders, three children and a mis-behaving husband.

She had a problem to solve - supplementing the family income, and she just got on with solving it.

When the older children were teenagers, and there were now two more younger ones my dad required a back operation. He was immobile for a year. She now needed to be the primary income earner. 

After many years she gave up taking boarders and went out to work.

With a grade 7 education options were minimal - and she didn’t fancy going back to the factory. My mom in fact was (is!) quite beautiful, and glamorous and the factory didn’t suit. 

She took a job doing banquets and waitressing at what was (at the time) one of the finer hotels in London. Her charm, sassiness and hard work earned her tips substantial enough to support the family while my dad recovered. She stayed on doing that job for 20 years - long after my dad returned to work. It enabled her to always assure there was enough money for gifts, celebrations and entertainment. She didn’t want her children to miss the things she had missed out on.

She raised five children, worked the morning shift (11am-3pm) the night shift (5:30pm-11pm) and came home in between to cook us dinner. Day after day. 

Hard work. Tenacity. Perseverance.

She also had a closet full of gowns and boxes of costume jewellery and would go out dancing with my dad and friends every Saturday night. We always sat as a family for a full Sunday meal. Our laundry was always washed and the house always spotless.

She just gone on with it. And rather than complain, she lived life to the fullest deriving great pleasure equally from working, entertaining and serving her family.

At the age of 48 my dad decided to drive home after a night out with the boys and had his driving license revoked. Faced with the prospect of us not being able to go to the beach for the entire summer she took driving lessons. At 48 she got her drivers license for the first time. We were still able to get to the beach (albeit scarily so!).

Problem. Solution. 

At the age of 60 my dad passed away. Despite being the person that presented my mom with some of her life challenges their marriage lasted just shy of 40 years - and they loved each other dearly.

Perseverance. Dedication. Commitment.

At this point you would think she would ride out her years in the rural house they had bought only a few years before. I hadn’t seen them as excited in my 18 years as when they received the keys for it - and it was a home that struck me as a cabin at best. They loved it.

But her love for the home was lost with my father. After trying her hand at business for a few years she moved to British Columbia to be with her sister. The weather was better for her daily walks and her sister was her best friend. Unable to support the move on her measly pension she went back to her creative bag of tricks, rented a large house and took in six boarders. She was 63 years old. Problem. Solution.

She couldn’t afford to have her furniture shipped out so she furnished it - dishes and all, from the charity shop. Problem. Solution.

Many years later when I announced I was having a baby - my 3rd child, my mom felt it best that she move back to Ontario and care for him. She didn’t want him ‘taken care of by a stranger’. She provided daycare, cooked for us, cleaned our house - as well as keeping her own house down the street. She did this from the ages of 70-79 - through the arrival of a fourth child. 

After a remarkable recovery from a triple bypass heart operation she continued to care for the kids in her home until we moved away. She was then 81. 

To my mom, every problem has always had a solution. It may not be easy. It may not be obvious. But it’s there. You need to care enough about solving the problem to find it. For every problem a solution exists. She taught me that. 

My mom only read the newspaper. I never saw her read a book. Academically she never went beyond her grade 7 education. But she is the most creative thinker I have ever personally known. Hand her a problem and she will solve it. She relies on her human gifts of judgement, intuition and tenacity. It’s that simple.

I’ve reflected on my mom's role in my life often. How she impacted my own thinking. How each time I reach for an excuse I have her as an example to rein me in. Having benefited from the highest levels of education myself, I know it hasn’t come close to teaching me what my mom has. 

My first child, Catherine, is named after her as an acknowledgement of my utmost respect for an incredible person. But I’ve never properly told her how much she has contributed to my professional thinking. She would assume that it all comes from schooling.

I have planned for a few years to write this out - to not only tell her, but to share with others how my mom was one of the original innovators. What innovation means at it’s core: solving problems in unexpected ways. Tenacity and hard-work. Commitment to a solution. Never backing down.

She got through life by finding solutions to problems that most others wouldn't imagine. 

Living thousands of miles apart I’ve thought about writing this out then calling to read it to her first (of course, I could just tell her but I'm certain I would fumble). To let her know that I know that I was raised by the best teacher I could ask for. That she was ahead of her time. 

But I figure I’ll do it next week. When I’m stronger. When I’m up to it. I speak to her on Sundays from my home in England to hers in Toronto. At 86-years old she still tries to figure out ways to get to the shop through a snowstorm, casting aside my suggestions that she should ask someone else to do it for her. She still digs for a solution to get to where she wants to go.

But as incredible as my mom is she’s not invincible. At the end of this month she’ll be 87 years old. 

And today she lies in St. Michael’s hospital in Toronto fighting pneumonia. Hoping to god that I can, I am today reminded that I can’t count on next week. 

So, I finally publish this for my mom - to make sure she knows why I do what I do. Why I fight for a solution even when one isn’t obvious. She taught me more than any book, teacher or professor. Spirit. Tenacity. Commitment.

And to share with others as they grapple to understand the secret formula of innovative thinking. Problem. Solution.